Rooted in L.A.'s hip Silver Lake club scene, guitarist-vocalist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Christopher Guanlao and keyboardist Joe Lester released their debut EP "Pikul" in mid-2005, followed a year later by the album "Carnavas." The buzz built through methods new and old--steady touring and radio play for the singles "Lazy Eye" and "Well Thought Out Twinkles," as well as tracks placed on video game, movie and television soundtracks--and last year, a few months after the release of their second album "Swoon," the musicians found themselves nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy.
"That was pretty weird,
wasn't it?" Aubert says, clearly
still bemused by the honor. "We
like to joke that it was a slow
year in music and that they just
landed on us when they threw the
dart at the dartboard!"
Truth be told, Silversun Pickups are too good for the Grammys. Elements of the swirling, psychedelic sound of early '90s shoegazers such as Lush and My Bloody Valentine merge with an at-time ferocious classic-rock crunch and gorgeous orchestral swells, and the group has won comparisons for both its sound and its ambition to Chicago's alternative-era heroes, the Smashing Pumpkins.
"When we were swimming in more indie circles, the comparison didn't come up; it was only when we got bigger that people started talking about the Smashing Pumpkins," Aubert says. "At first we were amazed that everyone thought we sounded like a real, huge band. I remember those records from when I was younger, and they were great. Because of the comparisons, we went and listened to them again, and to be honest, we became bigger fans. The only time when it was upsetting was because Nikki is a girl who plays bass and they compared [her to former Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy Wretzky]. It's like, 'O.K., that's crazy; they're not the only band with a girl bassist!'"
Despite the growing acclaim, Aubert says the group didn't feel any external pressure to top itself when it entered the studio to record "Swoon."
"We were the only ones who put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it worthwhile. We realized that we had some time to make a record, and we didn't have to do anything but get into the practice space and write songs. People gave us that opportunity by making our last record successful, so we didn't want to f--- it up by not using that time well. We went in there every second and just hammered at this thing--just pushed it and pushed it. We wanted to make sure that it was really worth it. But we never wrote or did anything as a sort of equation to make it work."
Nevertheless, the band did have the goal of capturing an even bigger sound the second time around.
"We were still having a love affair with certain sonics: the blanket-y sounds of the effects and the guitars. We wanted to explore that and go much deeper--to make it prettier, creepier and more emotional. And we knew we wanted to put organic sounds back in. On 'Carnavas,' we stripped it completely of anything acoustic; we wanted it to sound futuristic. With 'Swoon,' we wanted it to sound romantic and grand, and we did that knowing we were going to fool around with strings for the first time. We always used cello in L.A., when Tanya Haden used to play with us live. This time, we thought it was going to be a string quartet, but it turned into a 16-piece orchestra.
"I tell ya, if you're ever feeling sad or vengeful, just go listen in the same room as a 16-piece orchestra. I feel like there should be a type of therapy that allows you to have a 16-piece travel with you that day!"
Barring that, just go listen to "Swoon" or see the Silversun Pickups live--though it's doubtful you'll enjoy the ride any more than the musicians themselves.
"Basically, we're just really, really lucky," Aubert says. "Clearly, in some people's heads we're massive now, but to others, we're still very underground. What I like is that as big as things have gotten, people still feel like they have found us on their own. There was never really a hype machine pushing us down people's throats; it's really organic, and we're so appreciative of that. We don't want to just make a splash and then go away."